Guest Opinion: Watching Aleppo burn
The images of buildings sheared open by shelling remind us of Sarajevo and Grozny. The shallow graves remind us of Srebrenica and Rwanda.
Aleppo joins the tragic pantheon of places ruined by war. Its eastern half is a husk of a city, a wasteland of empty streets, mounds of broken bricks and gnarled rebar, half-destroyed edifices without power or water. Many of its people are either dead, or fled long ago, or are in desperate flight today. Once Syria’s largest city and the nation’s commercial capital, Aleppo now will be etched into history as a place that fell prey to what one United Nations official called “the complete meltdown of humanity.”
It’s an ignominious demise for a metropolis. Aleppo’s history dates back to 5000 B.C., a time when writing was done in cuneiform, when the Middle East was the cradle of civilization. Aleppo has a longevity that makes the destruction it’s experiencing now all the more surprising: The city has outlasted other onslaughts. Alexander the Great conquered it in 333 B.C. Then came the Romans, followed by the Byzantine Empire and later the Mongols. Aleppo also survived sieges by the Crusaders and a massive earthquake in 1138 that killed 230,000 people.
Aleppo’s ancient souqs, many still standing but pockmarked by shrapnel, speak to a legacy of vibrant and enduring commerce. The city fed the Silk Road with merchant caravans, becoming a bustling hub of trade prominent enough to garner mention by Shakespeare in Macbeth and Othello. In modern-day Syria, Aleppo became an industrial workhorse, reaching a population of 2.3 million by 2005. It’s a stretch to call Aleppo the Chicago of Syria, but in size of population and in national influence, there were similarities.
When civil war seeped into the city in early 2012, Aleppo became cleaved into a western half held by President Bashar Assad’s forces and the rebel-controlled eastern side. Aleppo and its generations over the millennia had withstood the turnstile of conquests, but it could not withstand the onslaught of Syrian government and Russian airstrikes. The world learned of a new, abhorrent form of killing used by Syrian troops: barrel bombs — metal containers filled with explosives, shrapnel and oil and dropped from helicopters. The use of barrel bombs was indiscriminate, and they killed legions of civilians.
Humanitarian groups pleaded for Western intervention. None came, and the bodies piled up. Aleppo’s cemeteries were so deluged that gravediggers doubled up the dead in existing graves. Civilian resilience gradually gave way to resignation. This week, before evacuations of survivors began, Syrians sent messages of desperation to the world. “My name is Bana, I’m 7 years old,” one tweet read. “I am talking to the world now live from East #Aleppo. This is my last moment to either live or die.”
Caravans of ambulances and green city buses began streaming out of eastern Aleppo this week, though the evacuation was in flux Friday. Meanwhile, the war rolls on, a conflict that has endured for nearly six years and is bound to last years more. And President Barack Obama must reconcile the bloodbath that took place in that broken city with the indefensible policy of idly watching it happen from the sidelines.